Rafael Leao has now gone over a month without a goal, leading to question marks about just how decisive he actually is for AC Milan.
La Gazzetta dello Sport recall the words of Pioli about who he had seen the most of over the summer: “Leao is the player who spent the most time in my office.” He said it with a smile because he felt Leao was finally turning a corner and blossoming.
The winger seemed objectively headed towards that step – certainly not the last, but certainly one of the most important – which was to become a consistently decisive player for Milan.
Leao is the star of the team, Milan most of the time lights up when he lights up, and in the same way goes out. Given that he will turn 25 next June, the feeling is that he can no longer be looked at as a young player who must grow and rather must take concrete steps forward in terms of maturity.
From a footballing perspective, Leao is no longer a young man, and the time has come to understand if he can and how he can take that next step. In Paris the challenge against Mbappé was merciless, but no one could – and should – have expected Rafa to play on par with a phenomenon that has been certified for some time now.
A middle ground would have been enough, that is, demonstrating that you have taken the right path to becoming one. Often, however, big games involving the Portuguese slip away without him leaving a mark.
Leao has not scored a goal since the win over Verona on September 23rd and that is only part of the problem. The question is more about being able to be a leader. At the beginning of the season he had assured that he felt ready, but the journey tells a different story.
To help him, so to speak, Milan gave him everything they could: the top salary in the squad, dedicated psychological assistance (in the sense that Ibra, Maldini and Pioli have always been very close to him), considerable help in resolving the legal dispute with Sporting CP (of course, technically Lille paid the compensation, but the €20m came from the Rossoneri, in exchange for the French club losing the resale clause), the No.10 shirt, the vice captain’s armband and, on one occasion, actually being captain.
Ronaldinho made it known that Rafa enchants him, while Pioli pampers him and defends him from Sacchi’s attacks in the media, yet the former Lille man seems unable to find a comfort zone within which to express himself entirely.
Or, looking at it from another perspective, he progresses slowly precisely because he is stuck in that comfort zone. It’s as if after the renewal, the very tiring negotiation, Rafa stopped.
Perhaps above all from a tactical point of view, and it’s not about how many times he goes up and down the flank to lend a hand when not in possession. What Pioli asks of him, sometimes even publicly to stimulate him, is a different approach to the attacking phase and to the occupation of spaces.
There was a symbolic moment in the early stages of the game against PSG: it was the 9th minute when Pulisic runs away to the right and delivers a decidedly inviting ball which travelled horizontally across the area and went out because there was nobody at the far post.
This is exactly what Pioli has been hammering home about for some time: attack the space in behind and the far post to get more involved in dangerous areas.
In recent days, Pioli, indirectly replying to Sacchi, said that ‘Leao is happy to have a coach like me’, in the sense of a coach who, in addition to letting him play, also grants him a certain freedom. But after the match against Newcastle he clarified that Rafa should have opened the scoring, while in Paris he added ‘if he had scored, it would have been better’.
His seasonal tally reads 3 goals in 12 appearances, or an average of one goal every 306 minutes. An average that does not do honour to a player protected by a clause of €175m.